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In re A.A.

Court of Appeals of Iowa

January 23, 2019

IN THE INTEREST OF A.A., D.A., and N.A., Minor Children, C.C., Mother, Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Romonda D. Belcher, District Associate Judge.

         A mother appeals the juvenile court order terminating her parental rights to three children.

          Amy K. Davis, Des Moines, for appellant mother.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Meredith L. Lamberti, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

          Kayla Stratton of Juvenile Public Defender's Office, Des Moines, guardian ad litem for minor children.

          Considered by Tabor, P.J., and Mullins and Bower, JJ.

          TABOR, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         Opioid addiction has ravished this family. Three children-A.A., D.A., and N.A.-lost their father, Dustin, to a heroin overdose in October 2017. Their mother, Courtnie, started using Vicodin ten years ago and switched to illegal opioids when her prescription expired. Courtnie continued to inject heroin after Dustin's death. In September 2018, the juvenile court terminated Courtnie's parental rights to the three children. She challenges the court's ruling, arguing termination was not in the children's best interests and asking for an additional six months to reunify.[1]

         "[A]n unresolved, severe, and chronic drug addiction can render a parent unfit to raise children." In re A.B., 815 N.W.2d 764, 776 (Iowa 2012). Unfortunately, this proposition is true for Courtnie. Courtnie was incarcerated at the time of the termination hearing, the children had been out of her care for more than one year, and she had not been able to stop using drugs outside the structured prison setting. Like the juvenile court, we conclude delaying permanency is not in the children's best interests.

         Courtnie's drug abuse prompted the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) to remove the children-then ages seven, three, and one-in July 2017. The juvenile court adjudicated them as children in need of assistance (CINA) in September 2017. Also that fall, Courtnie completed substance-abuse and mental- health assessments. She received diagnoses of a severe opioid abuse disorder and severe panic disorder.[2] Evaluators recommended extended outpatient treatment, but Courtnie did not complete a treatment program. Likewise, she did not consistently attend visitation with the children.

         Dustin's death further shook the family. Courtnie testified telling her children "their dad had passed away" was "probably one of the hardest moments" she ever faced as a parent. Courtnie acknowledged, "[A]fter losing Dustin, my mental state wasn't great at all." As evidence of that, she tested positive for illegal substances in November and December 2017. And House of Mercy staff asked her to leave when she admitted to using heroin at the treatment center.

         In April 2018, Courtnie started serving a prison sentence on an aggravated-misdemeanor theft conviction. The State filed its petition to terminate parental rights in July 2018. Courtnie was residing at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville and participated in the August hearing by telephone. She testified she had not received substance-abuse treatment at Mitchellville because of her relatively short sentence but had been participating in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. In September, the juvenile court issued its order terminating parental rights, relying on Iowa Code subsections 232.116(1)(e), (f), (h) and (l) (2018).

         On appeal, Courtnie does not contest the statutory grounds for termination. Instead, she argues severing the parental relationship was not in the children's best interests. See Iowa Code § 232.116(2) (framing best interests as foremost the children's safety and their best placement for furthering long-term nurturing and growth, as well as attending to their physical, mental, and emotional conditions and needs); see also In re P.L., 778 N.W.2d 33, 39 (Iowa 2010). She emphasizes the juvenile court may refrain from terminating parental rights when clear and convincing evidence shows termination would be detrimental to the children due to the closeness of the parent-child relationship. See Iowa Code § 232.116(3)(c). And she asks for a six-month extension.[3]

         The factors in section 232.116(3) allow the court to avoid terminating parental rights, but they "are permissive, not mandatory." In re A.S., 906 N.W.2d 467, 475 (Iowa 2018). In analyzing paragraph (c), "our consideration must center on whether the child[ren] will be disadvantaged by termination, and whether the disadvantage overcomes [the ...


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